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How healthy rivers are good for healthy businesses and communities in India


I recently took a trip to India to see first-hand how WWF is tackling environmental problems in the river Ganges basin.

The Ganges is known for being a holy river, but despite its prestige, it’s suffering from the way it is used and managed. Over-extraction (taking out too much water) and pollution are huge problems – almost 60% of its water is diverted before it even reaches the plains, and an unbelievable 12 billion litres of untreated wastewater flows into it every day.

Stretching from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the River Ganges is over 2,500 kilometres long and one of the most densely populated river basins in the world. © Hugh Mehta / WWF-UK

This is set to impact not only the species that depend on the Ganges, but the 450 million or so people that live in its basin.

Fields near Harnu villiage.Harnu is one of eight villages that took part in climate adaptation projects in the last year of the HSBC Climate Partnership. This included the introduction of sustainable water and agriculture practices, as well as wetland restoration projects. © Hugh Mehta / WWF-UK

Our work on the Ganges forms part of the global HSBC Water Programme through which we’re also helping protect four other priority places: the Yangtze and Mekong in Asia, Pantanal in South America and Mara in Africa.

I started my Indian journey in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh – the largest city in India’s most populous state – where we’re working with farming villages surrounding the city to implement better farming techniques that are less harmful to the environment.

This was best seen in Harnu, where with WWF’s support, farmers are opting for organic alternatives to the previously long-standing chemical fertilisers.

Our local partner introduced organic fertiliser and pesticides to Harnu village; whilst there, we received a demonstration on how to make this fertiliser from cow dung, urine, and a variety of herbs and plants. © Hugh Mehta / WWF-UK

I was struck not only by the environmental benefits this will deliver, but the improved food security and livelihoods.

The farmers I met spoke of better quality crops, a need for less watering and in some cases, new opportunities to sell for a premium. One now produces 85 sacks of organic potatoes each crop cycle, versus the 55 he used to, while another is now producing the organic fertiliser to sell on to others and boost his income significantly.

Working closely with communities is central to the HSBC Water Programme – we know that there are interdependencies between healthy rivers, communities and businesses and that an integrated approach is needed if we’re to revive the Ganges .

That’s why in Narora, we’re enabling local people on the river bank to reduce pollution by helping create domestic sewage treatment plants. It’s why we’re encouraging farmers to prevent river bank erosion and reduce chemical use.

Adding chlorine to safely treat drinking water.Chlorine is added at a water pumping station in Kanpur city. © Hugh Mehta / WWF-UK

Time spent in Moradabad – a city with 1.2m inhabitants which lies on the banks of the Ramganga (the first major tributary of the Ganges) – told a troubling story. Here, there’s no sewage treatment plant and the river is used as a drain for domestic and industrial waste. Low flows, caused by barrages that take away cleaner water elsewhere, mean there’s little to dilute the problem.

I saw for myself how poor the water quality was and heard first-hand from local communities that the river is no longer fit for drinking, washing or fishing

To tackle these issues WWF has spearheaded a new Ramganga Conservation Committee, which is bringing together local government, businesses and people to work together to revive the river. This group will be highlighting water issues and challenging industries in the area to reduce pollution.

We also need to better understand the health of the greater river system. While I was there I witnessed WWF orchestrating some simple water tests – part of our innovative community-based river assessment programme, which will engage hundreds of people at up to 15 sites, and provide invaluable feedback on water quality and flows.

It was striking to see how we’re working with local businesses and communities in India to promote good stewardship of water resources through the HSBC Water Programme. I like to hope that a healthy flowing Ramganga will be just one of its legacies.

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